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Bosnia: Humanitarian Organizations Face Obstacles

  • Julie Moffett

Washington, 3 July 1998 (RFE/RL) -- A U.S. expert says non-governmental organizations and humanitarian-relief agencies in Bosnia are unable to operate efficiently because they become mired in local politics or manipulated by city or regional leaders along ethnic lines.

Julia Demichelis, an urban planner who formerly worked for the International Red Cross, made the comment in a special report released this week. It was sponsored by the United States Institute of Peace. Demichelis spent three months interviewing Bosnian officials, donor representatives, non-governmental organization project managers and community participants in grassroots reconstruction programs in an attempt to discover the organizational and political obstacles to peace-building programs in more than twenty divided Bosnian communities.

Demichelis says that refugees returning to their homes in Bosnia have discovered their cities are now divided by physical boundary lines that separate majority and minority ethnic communities. Moreover, she adds that many of Bosnia's cities are run by "half-mayors," who conduct separate administration functions on each side of a city's ethnic dividing line.

Explains Demichelis: "Aid donors and non-governmental organizations involved in Bosnia's reconstruction have been stymied in their attempt to build up local capacities, as these half-mayors often use aid to achieve their political ends, strengthen their sides, and funnel aid disbursements to favored local suppliers and contractors."

Demichelis says that the intentions of foreign humanitarian-relief agencies and non-governmental agencies are good, but without a strong, comprehensive and clear donor strategy, these organizations become helplessly immersed in local politics and are ultimately forced to negotiate aid based on ethnic and political divisions.

According to Demichelis, the practice of establishing national standards for aid based on refugee return quotas -- a common procedure as of late -- is not an effective way to plan or implement assistance. She says each community should be evaluated according to its needs, and then in relation to the country's overall socio-economic situation.

Says Demichelis: "As each community is different in its level of suffering, so are the solutions and the leaders' capacities to deal with specific problems and priorities. Aiding only refugees or minorities increases local tensions. Help the whole community to improve conditions."

Demichelis suggests that humanitarian organizations and non-governmental agencies create a donor strategy aimed at trying to bridge ethnic divisions by encouraging projects that integrate local firms and city officials on both sides.

She also says that these organizations should ensure that their efforts and programs are sustainable once they leave. The best way to do that, says Demichelis, is for reconstruction programs to make extensive use of local resources -- including those of the private sector -- in their design and implementation. She says that this approach will strengthen the public sector while establishing partnerships within the community.

Demichelis explains: "Strengthen the community, not the leaders of the conflict. Empower community leaders on both sides of the city's ethnic dividing line to create their own solutions."

She also urges Bosnia's alternative political leaders to take a more enthusiastic role in influencing donor's agendas and focus on programs that encourage community and private sector building.

Say Demichelis: "Years of post-conflict experience have revealed that the main political parties do not encourage the kind of work that is necessary to promote peace-building in a balanced fashion."